By Indrani Kar
It is rare in Calgary to have the chance to see art expositions that can truly be considered world-class. The Art Gallery of Calgary does not fail in this regard. Its current main exhibit–the Alberta Biennial Celebrates Alex Janvier–is a collection of the life work of Native Canadian artist Alex Janvier. Janvier is an internationally renowned Dene artist who is a leading figure in the “Indian Group of Seven,” a group who produced very prolific work in the ’60s and ’70s in Canada. Janvier, actually a native of Alberta, has created one of the most abundant collections of art of any Aboriginal artist in Canada and is also associated with the Woodland group of artists that have influenced Native art in Canada. Along with the other Indian Group of Seven artists, Janvier helped in redefining the role of First Nations art across Canada and was instrumental in taking it out of its relegated, folk art status and bringing it to the forefront of respected art movements and styles in its own right worldwide. Janvier’s collection is a group of surreally beautiful pieces that are inspiring and open up a new dimension of art in Alberta rarely acknowledged by even Albertans themselves.
The current exhibit at the AGC displays Janvier’s work from the 1970s to 2005. While the exhibit certainly focuses on the more celebrated periods and styles in Janvier’s oeuvres, there are some paintings that are a marked departure from his earlier and more famous work, most notably his tableaux from the 2000s. A mature and accomplished artist by any measure, one cannot help but remark that there is still evolution across time with the paintings. It is refreshing to see such visual breadth and adaptability in the work of an established artist.
Much of Janvier’s work is somewhat surreal and almost fractal. Though Janvier was influenced by Western artists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, his work is also rife with traditional Native symbolism. His media are diverse, with acrylic and oil painted on regular canvas, linen, or burlap. Some of his famous works depart even from standard canvas shape and are actually round. Though abstract in representation, many of the themes and subject matter in Janvier’s work deal with very concrete, highly sensitive or controversial issues such as: European colonization, environmental degradation, the power and simultaneous fragility of nature, spirituality and cultural violence. Along with political and environmental themes, Janvier also depicts mythical stories, specific places or reflections of the beauty of his surroundings and even more mundane subjects such as simple daily rituals, in a subtle melange of Western and Native aesthetic sensibilities.
His delicate treatment of the subject matter with deliberate brush strokes and sometimes drawn images is a testament to the sophistication as well as skill of his work. Janvier’s work inspires individual interpretation on the part of the viewer. Indeed there is even a very well-designed interactive component set up in the gallery, in which viewers are invited to express what they see in one of Janvier’s pieces and are even given the opportunity to rename it. An adjacent area is also set up for children–or children at heart–to make little drawings themselves and post them next to the informative billboards on Dene history and traditional settlement in Canada.
In tandem with Janvier’s gargantuan collection–displayed on four floors in total–is a compilation of video and film work by Native artists, which play on a loop in the lower level of the gallery. Collectively titled Red Eye, this part of the show features short films that touch on themes important to contemporary Native artists in Canada and even includes a music video by aboriginal hip-hop group Slangblossom. Those interested in a modern Native perspective that incorporates creative expression will find this part of the exhibit enlightening in breaking stereotypes that pervade mainstream society about Native culture and people. One can also appreciate the complex nature of current Native issues through this video retrospective.